by Pastor Steve Parsons
Is my community safe?
A lot is being said about the need to find safe community. And when we consider what is at stake it should be one of every communities highest priorities.
So what is at stake? A place to belong. A place to feel received. A place to be seen. A place to sense a value. A place to be free from shame. Wait, what? A place to be free from shame? Could that really ever happen? Can a community, particularly a church community really be a safe place to be truly known as a sinner and be free from the shame of that reality? Isn’t there some long held tradition frowning upon authenticity? Don’t we compromise our witness with transparency?
The irony of this discussion is that it has the potential to cause communities to feel shame for not being safe. Trust me that is not the aim. Rather, the goal is to create a mindfulness of inviting God in to change our communities for the sake of those who belong. And this journey towards authenticity will be anything but easy. And isn’t that the same process we enter into as individuals? Inviting God in to change us? Truth be told, most of us don’t know that. We are instead under the mistaken idea that my efforts are the catalyst for change. And in that I fail, I instead am left to manage my shame.
Grace vs. Works
At the time that our New Testament Scriptures were written, the words for grace and works were directly antithetical to one another. They were mutually exclusive. The original word for grace conveyed a sense of the free gift out of the generous love of God. And that this kindness extended causes joy, pleasure, gratification, favor and acceptance to well up within us. It comes to us with a full sense of no strings attached and for that truth; has the capacity to convince us of our value, solidify our belonging, and win us to the knowledge that we are seen and loved. This is the very power to change us.
Work instead referred to a deed or act often wrought by man. Whereas we are involved in the work of the gospel by continuing the work that Jesus began, there was no part of our salvation and forgiveness that could be attributed to anything we worked at. In fact the idea of surrendering to Christ is a call to no longer work against His pursuit of us. That God would pursue us in the face of knowing every evil that has ever run through our mind or been accomplished within our flesh, is humbling if not altogether inconceivable. And yet, that is the pursuit of God to us. He does not turn His face from us though we may from Him. And He is always there to receive us back. He has the ability to see the real me buried behind the effects of my sin, that real me that he designed and took pleasure in.
So if God sees me and does not turn away and in my shame I believe He should not see me, then am I not the one hiding my face? And who gains from this arrangement other than the enemy of both God and man?
The First Great Illusion
What is the first great illusion? Ready? That I can hide. There is something innately naive in us that thinks that if we were to close our eyes like a little child that that would mean that no-one could see us. Adam and Eve tried to answer this new feeling of shame born of sin with hiding at many levels. Hiding their flesh with Fig leaves, hiding the truth with half truths and blame, ducking for cover at the first sense of God’s presence. Why do we believe it works?
Do we think that God does not see us? Or is hiding our best first attempt at dealing with shame? How sure we are in our own tactics, at least until it all comes out and the lie is revealed. And who has the maturity to understand early on that the greatest gift of grace may be in setting us free from our hiding place? Most of us cannot see beyond the self loathing and shame that might accompany our being found out. And the risk of rejection is so debilitating that it becomes like a drug to hide behind various masks of altered personas, never giving anyone or myself a chance of acceptance for who I am or a place to belong. The only drug greater is the sin by which we bring salve to these wounds of loneliness that perpetuate that very isolation…even in the context of others.
So Why Community?
Maybe the answer is too easy. God made us that way. At least that is what He tells us from the very beginning. “Let us make man in our image”, he said. And “It is not good for man to be alone”, He said. I attest that in my own being that I crave relationship. I also dare to admit within my personal history that I would prefer unhealthy connection over no connection at all.
But is community real if all of its members are wearing masks? Can I possibly feel loved if no-one really knows me? How much rest is there in a dance that never ends?
Safe community is born in a place where God is invited in to call us out of our hiding. It is a place where the pride of shame gains no strength and where humility invites God’s grace. It is a place where joy and acceptance reside because grace abounds.
Safe community cannot be willed into existence but can be invited in. As a group we can decide not to work against God as He walks us through a messy process. We invite grace when we humble ourselves. We hold each others story with confidentiality and an awareness that it is a holy place to be at the point where God is working in another persons life. That the power of shame is reinforced by our own hiding and freedom reinforced through supplication. Safe community seeks to see the person as God sees them and to respond to them in love rather then their scars in disgust. Safe community celebrates the relationships that God has given and protects weaknesses with each member.
God help us as your grace changes us. May you find us teachable and receptive to your leading.